The US House of Representatives and Senate [official websites] on Wednesday gave final approval to three free trade agreements, marking the first time in several years that the US has formed a trade partnership. The House and Senate voted in rapid succession [AP report] to pass the trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, which are predicted by the US International Trade Commission [official website] to boost national exports by approximately $13 billion, about 0.1 percent of GDP [BEA materials]. The agreements will lower or eliminate tariffs that US exporters face in the three countries and take steps to better protect intellectual property and improve access for American investors there. The agreement with South Korea, the world's thirteenth largest economy [CIA World Factbook backgrounder] in 2010 with an estimated GDP of $1.459 trillion, is being hailed as the largest such deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) [USTR backgrounder] with Mexico and Canada in 1994, which created the world's largest free trade zone. The agreements passed by large margins in both chambers of Congress, despite opposition from labor groups and other critics of free trade agreements who say they result in job losses and ignore labor rights problems in the partner countries. In the House, the votes were 278-151 for South Korea, 300-129 for Panama and 262-167 for Colombia; the Senate votes were 83-15 for Korea, 77-22 for Panama and 66-33 for Colombia. The last free trade agreement completed by the US was with Peru in 2007.
Despite the large margins and bipartisan support, the measures did not pass without debate. Republicans criticized President Barack Obama [official website] for taking several years to send the agreements to Congress for approval, as they were each originally signed during the Bush administration. Many in the president's own party, including organized labor and Democrats from areas hit hard by foreign competition, were critical of the White House for espousing the benefits of free trade, especially with Colombia, which has a reputation for violence against labor leaders and a history of labor leader assassinations. To appease Democrats, the White House demanded that the trade bills be linked to an extension of a Kennedy-era program that helps workers displaced by foreign competition, an extension that passed through Congress successfully with the trade agreements. In a press release the Panama Chamber of Commerce [official website] stated it "believes that implementation of the U.S.-Panama agreement will enhance export and investment opportunities for US companies and will enable American workers to compete in the quickly growing global economy, in which Panama plays a pivotal role as the gateway to the Americas." The first official trade pact between the US and Central America was signed [JURIST report] by then-president George W. Bush in 2005.